14 Must-Read Books for Activists

by Marsha Rakestraw

We become activists when we learn about an issue or challenge and are inspired to take positive action.

Teenager Natalie Warne learned about child soldiers when she watched a documentary in class. She was inspired to become an intern for Invisible Children and help get an important law passed.

Economist Muhammad Yunus was inspired to develop a microlending program when he saw how little money it took to raise many of the people in his village out of poverty.

One of the students from our Teaching for a Positive Future online course was inspired to start a Meatless Mondays program for the staff at her child’s school.

Taking positive action seems pretty simple (and it can be), but when we embrace activism as an integral part of our lives, we begin to encounter issues such as managing our time well; maintaining a healthy, joyful and balanced life; choosing the most effective projects; learning to communicate compassionately; and struggling with political, systemic, and social obstacles to change.

Fortunately, there are numerous resources we can turn to for inspiration and help. Here are just a few: 14 super-relevant books for activists that are beyond the traditional list of “strategies.”

  1. The Animal Activist’s Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact in Today’s World by Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich (2009)
    While targeted to animal protection issues, the core premise that we must use our time and resources for maximum meaning and effectiveness is relevant to every global issue.
  2. How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein (2007)
    Profiles people around the world who have used the social entrepreneurship model to find innovative solutions to a variety of global challenges.
  3. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (2009)
    First published in 1937, this is the “bible” for people-skills. Still very relevant today.
  4. States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering by Stanley Cohen (2001)
    While full of academic-speak, this in-depth examination of the personal and political ways that we can deny both uncomfortable realities and horrible atrocities offers important insights for activists.
  5. Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change by Nick Cooney (2010)
    It’s essential for advocates to understand why people make the choices they do, what influences them, and what kinds of strategies can inspire positive change. This book distills decades of research to help changemakers become more effective.
  6. Animal Impact: Proven Secrets to Achieve Results and Move the World by Caryn Ginsberg (2011)
    Although the focus is on animal protection issues, the book offers a framework that’s relevant for any social change movement. Full of insights, case studies, and strategies for maximizing your effectiveness. (Disclaimer: I was one of the manuscript readers for this book.)
  7. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2010)
    Designed primarily for business people, this book on the psychology of change is full of important insights for solutionaries.
  8. Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson (2001)
    An essential book for understanding systems of privilege and power and our role in them.
  9. Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff (2004)
    While the focus of the book is on progressive/conservative politics, the important message here for activists is all about framing and use of language. Great insights and examples that can be applied to social change situations.
  10. You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear by Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins (2004)
    Offers tools and inspirational stories for understanding our fear and turning it into a positive power to change our lives and the world.
  11. Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times by Paul Rogat Loeb (2010)
    Offers a new and empowering vision for engaging in social issues. Includes numerous insightful examples and important reminders.
  12. Writing to Change the World by Mary Pipher (2007)
    If one of your tools for social change is writing (even if it’s just the occasional letter to the editor), Pipher’s book has some invaluable tidbits, and one of the best activist letters I have ever read.
  13. The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way by Hillary Rettig (2006)
    Many books for activists talk strategy, but how many focus on how to integrate activism into your life in a mindful, healthy way. The book explores issues such as finding your mission, coping with burnout, and dealing with your time and finances constructively.
  14. Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life by Zoe Weil (2009)
    Ensuring that our choices reflect our values and that we’re striving to do the most good and least harm for all are important elements of being a healthy, joyful, effective activist. A must-read from IHE’s own president.